I am watching football as I write this.
Those of you who know me may close your mouths now. After finishing a book about the history of the game which ends with the fascinating story of the first “air game” between Notre Dame and Army in 1913, I felt the need to watch the modern-day version of a game that started out more like rugby’s ugly younger brother.
Very rarely do I do reading for work during my off-time. I spend a lot of time with Theodore Roosevelt during the day, so I like to take a break from the exhausting character when I’m not at work. However, our big annual event is coming up and some authors who recently published works on Roosevelt are planning on attending and I’d like to talk to them about their new books for my blog at work. Which means I need to have read these books. Minor technicality. While two of them do not come out until next month, John J. Miller’s The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football came out earlier this year so I started with the one I could get my hands on easiest.
Now, I’m not much of a football fan. I find the game somewhat slow at times – I much prefer basketball or hockey, games which are constantly moving. However, I grew up watching football along with the other two sports. My dad is a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan and so is my sister. I remember the Super Bowls between the Bills and Cowboys because my uncle would be in the house to see who would win the bet between he and my dad. I vaguely recall going to Syracuse University football games when I was a kid and my parents had season tickets (and the team was, well…decent). So, I know the basics of the game. Which was helpful for reading this book, let me tell you. But I’m not a fan. Perhaps if I hadn’t attended Michigan during a football slump (actually, they’d done better since I left Ann Arbor…perhaps it was me…), I would have been a convert to the game.
Miller clearly loves the game and he assumes the reader has some knowledge of the game and how it is played today. Mainly I was impressed that I could follow him at times – apparently I have absorbed more football knowledge than I thought over the years. The book follows the game of football as it developed into a major college sport, using Roosevelt as sort of a thread along the side of the story until his direct 1905 intervention into the game by calling a “football summit” at the White House. Deaths on the gridiron were quite common when football first started being played on college campuses. There were no rules and players wore no safety equipment. However, the game played into a new movement called Muscular Christianity so the early attempts to ban it did not stick as it was popular with students and popular with public figures as a game which produced strong, brave and honorable young men. Miller follows the stories of the earliest opponents to football such as Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University. He introduces Walter Camp, the father of football, and his struggle to make it 10 yards for a down and to keep the forward pass out of the game for good (can you imagine?). If you are looking for a book that will give you an overview of football’s earliest years, Miller delivers.
If nothing else, I think I have a greater appreciation for the game of football and how it reached the pinnacle of popularity it has enjoyed for decades (something a trip to the Football Hall of Fame as a kid couldn’t even instill in me). So, I sit here on a Sunday watching football and marveling at the game that started out as a bunch of young men shoving each other around a muddy field in Cambridge. Pretty impressive, I must say.